When Shia LaBeouf won the Hollywood Film Award for breakthrough screenwriter for Honey Boy last weekend he had some unusual thank yous: the police officer who arrested him for public drunkenness in Savannah, Georgia, in 2017, and the therapist and sponsor LaBeouf met through his court-appointed rehab. Not only did they change and save his life; they helped LaBeouf recognize his childhood trauma and turn it into the screenplay for his biopic, Honey Boy.
In the movie, Lucas Hedges plays a 20-something version of LaBeouf (though he's named Otis Lort), who is also sentenced to rehab after fighting with police. LaBeouf was that age the first time his drinking started getting him arrested, too, but in real life, it was almost another 10 years before he underwent the kind of intense therapy that we get a peek of onscreen.
LaBeouf has expressed much remorse over the incident that landed him in rehab this last time. He was on a break from shooting The Peanut Butter Falcon and was walking outside his hotel room drunk. He got into an argument with a Black man on the street who refused to give him a cigarette, and when the man flashed his police badge, LaBeouf ran. Parts of his arrest video included some racist tirades, which LaBeouf said were taken out of context by TMZ.
The judge allowed him to finish making his film, which turned out to be very beneficial to LaBeouf. His co-star Zack Gottsagan, who has Down syndrome, gave him a good talking to.
"To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life," LaBeouf told Esquire.
He sobered up right away, but the real work still lay ahead of him. In rehab, he underwent exposure therapy, which is designed to help the patient stop avoiding their fears and instead face them in a safe environment.
"It was the first time I was told I had PTSD," LaBeouf told The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter. "I had just thought I was an alcoholic."
LaBeouf began writing down stories of his childhood and taped some of his therapy sessions. He realized that much of his trauma occurred when he was a preteen, living with his abusive father, a Vietnam vet and recovering drug addict, while building his career as a child actor.
He sent the transcripts of these sessions to his friend, documentary filmmaker Alma Har'el, just to get some feedback. "She was like, ‘Oh, this is a movie.’ "
To be clear, the final screenplay is not actually a transcript of LaBeouf's therapy. With Har'el's help, he turned those real-life events into a story we could stomach onscreen.
"What we showed was 5% of what happened," Har'el told Refinery29. "We could have gone into more painful or more violent times that happened to him in general. There were just so many traumatic events in his childhood. … We found a way to tell the story, and make it clear what the dynamic was, without fetishizing the pain or shocking the audience. Really, the film is about a relationship between a father and son, and that generational pain."
The exposure therapy continued on a new level when Har'el urged LaBeouf to play his dad in Honey Boy — I'm not sure that's something rehab centers are going to start prescribing for other patients any time soon, but it sounds convincing when they talk about it.
Though none of this is an outright cure for LaBeouf's trauma, he has remained sober. He's also speaking to his father again, after cutting off contact for seven years.
"It’s complicated still like any relationship with a parent," he told Variety. "But we’re in a way better place, and he’s in a way better place."